We would stand in circles holding hands and pray, an assortment of kids in an assortment of clothing. Some girls were lucky enough to wear pants—jeans!—to Sunday church. Others of us, myself included, were stuffed into jumpers and chunky sandals.
The group leader would corral some age group of kids together and encourage us to share our prayer requests. This would not be a big people prayer, like our parents or neighbors or grandparents were doing in the big people sanctuary, since those prayers required microphones and ambient music and probably some mysterious work of the Spirit. Here, in kids’ church, the group leader would pray for and with us in hushed tones, quiet, near.
There were the usual prayer requests: some kid’s parents were getting divorced; someone was being bullied; someone wanted their parents to stop smoking; someone wanted to be healed of asthma (that was me) or ADD; someone wanted their dad or grandparents or siblings to be Saved. (Being Saved meant a lot of things but it especially meant coming to church and making that long trek to the altar at the end of service. I did this regularly in kids’ church just to Be Sure, lest I die the moment I stepped outside of the church and be separated from God for eternity.)
But occasionally, as we made our way around the circle, myself indifferently taking in the other kids’ deepest desires, someone would say: Unspoken.
Images: looming shadows in a dark attic, a Very Bad Parent, something so treacherous it could not even be uttered, especially in God’s house. (I would liken this to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but back then, Harry Potter was Of the Devil, along with Halloween and other stories involving general demonic demoness.)
An unspoken request was a mystery unsolvable by even the most fantastic, detailed scenarios one spent the rest of the prayer time cycling through. It was a secret between that person and God, and the rest of us were only aware of its presence.
Used sparingly, an unspoken request made someone aloof and serious in my eyes. Clearly, they had something to hide.
Used excessively, an unspoken request made someone predictable and gimmicky. Ugh. Another unspoken. Probably the same one from last time. How was one to find words to pray for something she couldn’t even identify? It seemed an unfair burden on the rest of us, especially kids like me, who took words a bit too seriously and always during prayer. Say it wrong and God might not answer it.
Today, I make unspoken prayers in solitude. It may be that I don’t want to say something, but mostly I don’t know what to say. Sometimes I lay in bed or stare at my dinner and just hope for God to know what I might be praying about but am not sure I’m praying about. I think in God’s general direction and say, “here.”
Unspoken requests no longer seem like the mysterious deeds I thought they were as a child. I have learned how often words seem to walk away.
“Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you. / Remember language comes from this.” wrote poet Joy Harjo.
Language is as complicated and faulty as everything else in the world. No wonder it doesn’t always work. Thank God it is not always needed.